Why Our Schools Are Segregated

In the May issue of Educational Leadership, I attempt to show how our misunderstanding of the origins of racial segregation stands in the way of efforts to narrow the black-white academic achievement gap.

Socially and economically disadvantaged children perform, on average, at lower levels of achievement than advantaged children. The achievement gap primarily results from disadvantaged children coming to school unprepared to take advantage of what schools have to offer, not primarily from inadequate teachers or schools. Children who come to school from households with poor literacy levels, who are in poor health, whose housing is unstable, whose parents are suffering the stress of unemployment, and who are themselves stressed as well in neighborhoods with high levels of crime and violence, cannot be expected to achieve, on average, as well as middle class children, even if all have high quality instruction.

Disadvantaged children’s obstacles to achievement are exacerbated when these children are concentrated in racially and economically homogeneous and isolated schools. Meaningful narrowing of the achievement gap will not be possible without breaking down these barriers and integrating black children into middle-class schools.

Otherwise informed opinion accepts that school segregation is “de facto” because schools are located in segregated neighborhoods, and that residential segregation today is also mostly “de facto,” the result of personal choices, financial means, or demographic changes.

Partly from this conviction, there is little support for aggressive policies, including race-conscious ones, to integrate metropolitan areas, a necessary precondition for meaningful school integration. The Supreme Court’s view, expressed in the Louisville-Seattle school integration case (“Parents Involved,” 2007), that there is no constitutionally mandated remedy for existing (“de facto”) segregation is also widely accepted.

Yet most Americans have forgotten that residential racial segregation, North and South, was created and perpetuated by, and continues to exist today because of, racially motivated and racially explicit federal, state and local banking regulation, mortgage guarantee, public housing, law enforcement, planning and zoning, highway and school construction, urban renewal and other policies that succeeded in their purpose of creating racially segregated metropolises. The racial segregation of major urban areas today offends the Constitution.

Familiarizing Americans with the history of state-sponsored segregation is necessary before support will be possible for policies to undo that segregation.